November 17, 2007

"In the government yard in Trenchtown"

It's odd how certain lines from songs stick in the heads of lots of people. One of the stranger famous lines is from Bob Marley's 1975 hit "No Woman, No Cry," especially in its amblingly monumental live version:
I remember when we used to sit
In the government yard in Trenchtown

Trenchtown is a slum neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica whose most distinctive feature was an open sewer trench. The government yard was a public housing project where Marley lived.

This doesn't sound like promising raw materials for a tourist attraction, but the second line is so ineffably memorable that, sure enough, Jamaicans are trying to make the government yard in Trenchtown into a museum. Apparently, tourists have been getting off planes for years and telling cab drivers they want to sit in the government yard in Trenchtown. The BBC reports:
"The public housing project where reggae legend Bob Marley lived is being re-envisioned as a historic site and tourist area. But high crime in the depressed neighborhood poses a challenge to dreams of a tourist-friendly shrine to Marley."

I can see how this could be a problem because the crime rate in Kingston scared the hell out of The Clash when they visited 30 years ago. As Joe Strummer recalled of their trip to Jamaica in "Safe European Home:"
I went to the place
Where every white face
Is an invitation to robbery
An’ sitting here in my safe European home
I don’t wanna go back there again

Didn't Bob have, like, a favorite beach or waterfall he liked to visit, maybe bring his guitar along and work on his songs? Tourists like beaches and waterfalls a lot more than they like housing projects. I'm just trying to be helpful here ...

The funny thing about the line's fame is that there's not a lot of catchy melody going on when Bob sings, "In the government yard in Trenchtown." I suspect the use of common English words to make up slightly puzzling phrases helped make it popular. But, clearly, the wistful, elegiac organ part behind the verses plays a huge role.

Now, where have I had heard the organ line in "No Woman, No Cry" more or less before? I certainly have negligible musical skills, but it's surely reminiscent of (without being exactly the same as) Procol Harum's famous bluesy organ part from their 1967 hit "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Procol Harum's organ line was inspired by J.S. Bach's "Air on a G String" and another Bach piece. (Here's a technical discussion of the Bach-Procol relationship, and here's the scene in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing about how Bach, "that cheeky beggar," stole "A Whiter Shade of Pale.")

Marley's organ part is quite similar to Procol's, and adds a catchy descending resolution at the end, set to the words "No woman, no cry," that wraps it up nicely. (By the way, here's a quantitative description of why the live version of "No Woman, No Cry" is so much more popular than the trite studio version on Natty Dread -- it's slowed down from 99 beats per minute on the studio album to 78 beats per minute on the live album. This MeanSpeed site has calculated the beats-per-minute of 15,000 pop songs, and has developed some elaborate theories about how different speeds fit different emotions.)

So, I was pleased to find out that Procol Harum has noticed this too and uses this when they tour on the Baby Boom nostalgia circuit:

"When they did Whiter Shade ... Gary feinted with a couple of false starts, going once into No Woman, No Cry and once into When a Man Loves a Woman before doing the full three-verse version ('Said I'm home on shore leave...')."

Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" came out the year before and has a similar chord structure to AWSoP.

Although there was a long court fight among members of Procol Harum over whether the Bach-inspired organ part was original enough to merit a share of the songwriting credit (and thus the royalties), it would be tacky to sue the Marley estate for a share of "No Woman, No Cry" because Marley registered the song he wrote as being written by a friend named V. Ford who runs a soup kitchen -- so "No Woman, No Cry" is the charitable donation that keeps on giving.

I've always liked to see bands mashup songs by different artists that share elements in common, such as a backbeat or chord structure.

Even more fun is when musician and singer aren't in cahoots but can still follow each other. The best DJ in LA is Steve Jones, the Sex Pistols guitarist, a shambling, amiable old bloke who knows everybody in the music business. Despite all the made-up nonsense about how the (pre-Sid) Sex Pistols couldn't play their instruments (kind of like how "Seinfeld," the most intricately plotted sitcom in American TV history, is always described as a "a show about nothing"), Jones was a well-paid session guitarist for many years after the Sex Pistols broke up in 1978. So, Jonesy, who has been on the wagon for twelve years, does his two hour show each day on 103.1 FM with his acoustic guitar in his lap. It's fascinating listening to somebody who talks like an old duffer, yet whose music intelligence remains so sharp.

Last spring, his guest was Mika, a Beirut-born English pop singer with operatic training. So, Jonesy started by playing on his guitar Mika's latest hit for his guest to sing, then segueing into songs by Mika's influences, such as Freddie Mercury (an English Parsi gay) and George Michael (an English Greek/Jewish gay), then into songs that influenced Mika's influences, such as going from George Michael and Wham's "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" to Martha and the Vandella's Motown "Heat Wave." Mika valiantly followed Jonesy' lead, scat-singing when he couldn't remember the lyrics, turning ten minutes of live music into a seminar on a half century of one thread of pop history.

The Jonesy's Jukebox show is such a success that it seems very strange that I can't recall ever hearing before a rock DJ who plays guitar live on the air.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

17 comments:

tommy said...

That's very funny because I've had the lyrics to Desmond Dekker's "007 (Shanty Town)" in my head a lot the last few days.

0-0-7
0-0-7
At ocean eleven
And now rudeboys have a go wail
'Cause them out of jail
Rudeboys cannot fail
'Cause them must get bail

Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail
A Shanty Town
Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail
A Shanty Town
Dem rudeboys get a probation
A Shanty Town
And rudeboy bomb up the town
A Shanty Town


Must be something with reggae.

Fred said...

Great post, Steve. You should write more about music -- you have a talent for it.

Procol Harem quoting "No Woman No Cry" reminded me of something similar. I once saw Better Than Ezra in concert when they quoted a few bars of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" in the bridge of their song "In the Blood". In BTE's case, they were probably influenced by the song they quoted.

Cedric Morrison said...

>"Last spring, his guest was Mika, a Beirut-born English pop singer with operatic training. So, Jonesy started by playing on his guitar Mika's latest hit for his guest to sing, then segueing instantly into songs by Mika's influences, such as Freddie Mercury (an English Parsi gay) and George Michael (an English Greek/Jewish gay), then into songs that influenced Mika's influences, such as going from George Michael and Wham's "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" to Martha and the Vandella's Motown "Heat Wave." Mika valiantly followed Jonesy' lead, scat-singing when he couldn't remember the lyrics, turning the ten minutes of live music into a seminar on a half century of one thread of pop history.
___________________________________

I got chills reading that. I hope someone recorded it. That is the kind of thing where copyrights get in the way. It doesn't have much money-making potential, and all of the rights involved make it not worth ever legally releasing. But it is still something that a lot of people would love to hear, and no one is losing anything if they get to do so.

Anonymous said...

The best Bob Marley song:

http://tinyurl.com/2auyvr

Tailspin said...

Song lyric tourism might be a potentially pecunious niche market, but it's Sunday morning, so the only one that comes to immediate mind is I drive up to Muswell Hill, I've even been to Selsey Bill.

Vanya said...

The chord progression (C-G-Am-F) of "No Woman, No Cry" is the same progression as the Beatle's "Let it be". You can very easily sing one song over the other - try it sometime. A decade later U2 managed to turn the same chord progression into yet another hit by changing the key and creating "With or without you".

"Whiter Shade of Pale" is in the same key, mostly same chords but in a different order - C-Am-F-Dm-G7-Em, which I suppose sounds more more "Bachian" as it keeps alternating between between the major and relative minor, a very common progression in 18th century music.

Anonymous said...

One of the best 'mashup' -- avantla lettre -- was an early-eightes mix of Michael Jackson's Billy Jean with Steely Dan's 'Back Jack, do it again' (don't know the title). It really works.

Proofreader said...

At least Marley's lyrics make sense, despite the Jamaican dialect. Compare it to the waste of time of trying to figure out what the lyrics to a "whiter shade of pale" mean. They do sound right to the music, granted.
That would make for a great topic: "great songs with crazy lyrics".

derf said...

i think it was chris blackwell who insisted on putting keyboards all over the wailers tracks, to make them more palatable for a paler audience.

another famous borrowing was in buffalo soldier, where bob sings the theme from the 'banana splits' kids TV show.

Anonymous said...

Day-um! What a densely packed essay! I got to read this one twice,maybe 3 times! :0 Now I must be off to YouTube to listen to these songs.Incidentally, I always suspected that his "Redemption Song" was derived from an older Celt-folk song.It just sounds like it...Uhm,care to take a crack at that one,smart guy??:) (The 1st line sounds like "sailors rabbi"-possible reference to Marleys Syrian-Jew roots. Who'd a thunk Marley and Jery Seinfeld have a point of commonality? O'course Marley believed in his looney Rasta religion...and Seinfeld practiced Scientology...hmmmmm!

Butt-head said...

Heh heh. "Air On a G-string" heh heh heh.

sonny said...

in addition to the melody, instrumentation and marley's singing, i always felt that the lyric "i remember when we used to sit..." was powerful in its ability to be nostalgiac, for the old days, when we were young and poor, but happy. or get wistful about times and people no longer around.

he goes on to mention individual people by name (georgie) and food and sharing.

and of course, 'everything is gonna be alright'

Mark said...

That would make for a great topic: "great songs with crazy lyrics".

That topic begins and ends with Jon Lennon's "Imagine," though there's plenty of other stuff in between.

Anonymous said...

It's posts like these that make Sailer such an interesting writer and give him a surprisingly large readership among liberals and leftists-- the poisonous nature of his comment section aside. Oh, and Redemption Song is basically a bunch of Biblical quotes spliced together-- mainly the Joseph story from Genesis and lines from the Four Gospels.

Anonymous said...

Steve,

This was a great little post. I'd like to see more stuff like this.

Anonymous said...

Actually, here in Toronto, on of Canada's "rock gods", Kim Mitchell, is now a DJ on the premier "classic rock" station, Q107. And he regularly pulls out the guitar to play on air with guests.

He also has a great bit about "Songs I Wish I Wrote".

Anonymous said...

another famous borrowing was in buffalo soldier, where bob sings the theme from the 'banana splits' kids TV show.

Okay ... so I'm not crazy.

For years I thought I was the only person who noticed this.